What is IVR?

IVR stands for Interactive Voice Response, and it describes what we use when we’re on a phone call but we’re doing more than just talking directly to another human being — so we might be communicating by pressing buttons/numbers, or talking to a recorded message that we know is recognizing our specific words.

IVR solutions have become such an everyday part of phone systems nowadays, that when we’re calling a business in particular it would actually be quite surprising to get straight through to a human on the other side — instead, we expect an IVR system to mediate our incoming call, and that this will be the most effective way to get our query directed to the right place and resolved fast.

>Whats is IVR?

While modern business cloud phone systems like Ringover enable elegant and sophisticated IVR deployment, the actual technology behind the idea is far from new. For decades, people have interacted with phone systems both through their voice, and through dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) signalling.

You know when you dial a phone number manually, each number has a differently pitched sound associated with it? Actually, it’s a pair of frequencies, now defined by an AT+T protocol. Those DTMF signals have been understood by phones since the 1960s when Bell introduced it’s Touch-Tone system. But it really came into its own in the 1980s, by which time technology had caught up with the storage and replay of human voice recordings, to be used alongside the tone recognition — and meant that businesses could offer basic routing of inbound calls, like ‘dial one for accounts, dial two for customer service’, etc, replacing the need for human receptionists to perform this role and manually put callers through.

Definition interactive voice response

This was soon followed by rudimentary voice recognition, which when it was first introduced was frustratingly inaccurate.

When a robot voice asked you which city you wanted to book cinema tickets for then repeated back to you somewhere completely different that was hundreds of miles away, people wanted to scream - and frequently stabbed away at the hash key or any other combination to try to reach a human operator.

But as with all technologies, it evolved and improved with use, and gradually greater volumes of inquiries could be handled automatically, ensuring that if you did end up speaking to a real live person at some point they were probably the best person to help you and already had some context about your call.*

Interactive Voice Response: Definition, Benefits and Setup

Different kinds of IVR today

Nowadays tools like Ringover offer really flexible ways to configure an IVR system, to best meet the needs of both the customer and the organization. They can respond effectively to both voice and tone input, and instantly connect these input to back-end databases and CRMs — for example, you might call a courier company to check on a delivery, and in the first instance be asked to enter the delivery reference number, then encounter a menu asking you to select between reporting a missing item, or rearranging a time slot because you’re going to be out.

Single and multi-level IVRs

This is an example of a multi-level IVR call center, because it acts through multiple levels. In this situation with the courier service, the system immediately recognizes that this is a live reference number for a package which is currently out for delivery but not yet signed for, so it offers up specific relevant options only at the next level. It doesn’t offer an option to say that a parcel is damaged or you need to arrange a collection, because that won’t be relevant to the customer who hasn’t received their goods yet.

Single and multi-level IVRs

When this is implemented with consideration and thought it can save the caller a lot of time, because they’ll end up speaking to the right person as quickly as possible — for example, the one support agent who is specialized in helping people use that product they are having difficulties with, or the person whose job it is to chase those late deliveries. However, multi-level IVRs need to be deployed carefully, because it can be frustrating for callers who realize they may have chosen the wrong route several clicks back, and reached a dead end — whereas they feel that if they could just explain to a real person, their problem might be quickly sorted out.

For this reason some organizations adopt a policy of strictly single-level IVRs (which have also been around longer, and are technologically a simpler implementation). This works best when there are large teams and categories involved, and you can simply route through to a department like customer support or sales via a single click — and then it might ring out to the entire contact center, so the next available agent can pick up and deal.

Single level IVR numbers are super quick for your customers to navigate, but can lead to their having to explain more once their call is answered, or get transferred or escalated manually to someone better able to help them. In that event, a multi-level IVR service will save customers time and frustration in the end. You can decide based on what you know about your customers, and what they will prefer, in terms of how to interact.

Use cases of IVRs

As you can imagine there are a million different ways to use IVR solutions, to support the quality of conversation you have with your customers. Here are some specific examples, which you might be able to apply in your own business.

To provide out-of-hours coverage

To provide out-of-hours coverage - Use case IVR

Your business may not operate 24-7, but customer expectations are increasingly tending that way today, so having your main business number simply ring out or go straight to voicemail out of hours is not really an acceptable option.

Instead, you can use your IVR to provide information about times that calls can normally be attended, to invite a voicemail and callback, or (depending on your business) to advise on emergency actions and solutions. You can remind them that your website is always available to them, or whatever action you’d most like them to take.

To advertise and inform

To advertise and inform - Use case IVR

Assuming it’s not the middle of the night, and they really do want to speak to someone, they can always hang on and queue, and you can use that waiting time to sensitively and appropriately share information which might be helpful to them — special offers, new products, and so on.

Here’s one tip: if you are playing hold music to your caller, then halt it abruptly to tell them about your latest promotion, it can create frustration — because they think that the music stopping means they’re about to be connected at last… Then instead they get that advert, *again*. So, tread carefully, that fine line which lies between informing and annoying your customers!

You can also use your IVR system to manage expectations and share timely updates which are reassuring and relevant, such as we are sorry if you are having to wait longer than usual for attention, due to the localized flooding we are receiving a higher than usual volume of calls. Your average remaining wait time is X minutes.

To get to the right person first time

To get to the right person first time - Use case IVR

While multi-level IVRs can be confusing to navigate if badly designed, they can be used to great effect to route people to the right place within a large organization.

For example, if you sell multiple products, you can first filter out whether they want to buy something or get help with something already purchased. If it’s the latter option, then which product is it? Because you may have specialist agents who are expert in resolving that very thing, and it makes sense to get to them first.

When a business publishes one main number, calls incoming could be anything from media inquiries to utilities suppliers to the next VIP customer, so every level of the IVR needs careful attention to route them to the right place smoothly.

To collect relevant information

To collect relevant information - Use case IVR

When you have your IVR integrated with a backend database like a CRM, you can use it to gather context for the conversation, which the caller would otherwise have to tell the agent anyway.

For example in banking and financial services the IVR can filter callers through security information, which proves they are who they say they are, and makes it safe for your agent to discuss their financial affairs, as well as being able to greet them by name on connection.

Or if someone already has a complaint or issue, they may have a reference they can input in the IVR number dialing system, so that once they reach an agent that person has all the information about the previous calls and actions right there on their screen. Some of this might be triggered anyway by the caller ID, but you can use the IVR to bring it right up to date — if you still have not received your package, dial 1 now.

To optimize your call center

To optimize your call center - Use case IVR

There’s an old saying, you can have it fast, cheap, or great — or any combination of the two. But you can’t have all 3 simultaneously. This applies in practical terms to customer service, and you can use your IVR to prioritize the elements which are most important to you.

For example, if you sell high-end luxury brands to discerning and mature time-poor customers, personal attention is key. You will want to minimize friction when they contact you and if your customer research indicates they prefer to talk to a human rather than self-serve, you’ll optimize for that — with a single level IVR, and a broadly experienced team of agents who are generalists, and trained to respond to a diverse range of needs and inquiries, acting like a concierge — because every call represents significant lifetime customer value, and needs the red carpet treatment.

Or, you might sell a higher-volume, low-value product range, to large numbers of customers — in which case, the more of them that can route out to self-service pathways, receive recorded information, and do some of the work themselves (such as inputting product/service reference details), the better. You’ll want to optimize around costs in this scenario, and despatch each incoming query as rapidly as possible, focusing on those operational metrics for maximum efficiency. Next!

Either way, your IVR can be uniquely configured to best serve the needs of your callers in the most appropriate way, and of course it can be continually tweaked. How does adding another layer to the decision-tree affect your throughput, or your NPS? With the design completely under your control in the Ringover dashboard, you can test and implement changes as often as you want, and see the effect in real time.

To cope with the ebb and flow of call volume

To cope with the ebb and flow of call volume - Use case IVR

Call center management is a blend of art and science, but even the most experienced manager has to deal with circumstances outside of their control — including technical failures, staff absence, or external events which trigger large volumes of inquiries.

While you work to get more agents on-shift at short notice to handle additional calls, your IVR is the next best thing, and a far better option than calls going unattended. Helping to manage and filter the queue helps you make the best use of resources — for example, by routing out all calls not related to the present emergency situation to a voicemail where they may request a callback.

While you work to get more agents on-shift at short notice to handle additional calls, your IVR is the next best thing, and a far better option than calls going unattended. Helping to manage and filter the queue helps you make the best use of resources — for example, by routing out all calls not related to the present emergency situation to a voicemail where they may request a callback.

To get people out of your call queue altogether!

To get people out of your call queue altogether! - Use case IVR

While voice calling remains a hugely significant channel for customer service and support, it is far from the only one, and indeed there are lots of people who might prefer not to have a conversation at all. They don’t have to be a stereotypical shy millennial to feel like this — they might be operating in a second language, have an embarrassing problem, or be in a public place when calling. By providing them with alternatives you free up your human agents, remove delay for your customers, and continually enhance the efficiencies of your bots and machine learning components — win, win, win.

So, your IVR can advise them of different options: “did you know you can renew your policy online, at any time, by visiting xxxx, or by dropping in to your nearest high street branch?” At this point the caller can self-select to hang up the call, and complete their request a different way. They might be able to get all the information they need, just by listening to the recording you provide for them: dial 3 to check branch opening times”, “dial 4 to hear the latest updates about service cancellations”.

Or, a multi-level IVR can be configured to carry out the required action in a completely automated and intelligent way. Enter the policy number of the coverage you wish to renew, confirm by pressing 1 that the underwriting circumstances remain unchanged, listen to the small print disclaimer and press 2 to accept the terms and conditions… And the whole thing is done, without the involvement of a human operator at all.

Why use IVR?

Why use IVR?

As you can see from the use cases above, there are many great examples of IVR use which apply in different circumstances.

It’s important to appreciate that, far from being an inconvenience to the customer, modern IVR solutions are so accurate and sophisticated that they can save a great deal of time and effort. Provided you design it sensitively and creatively and monitor the impact of any changes through your contact center metrics, your IVR service is a great asset to your business.

Here are some benefits you can expect to see:

Improved call center metrics

You measure many different things to monitor the effectiveness of your call center, and lots of these numbers can be improved with the help of the right IVR setup.

For example, call abandonment can be reduced, if customers are reassured about the importance of their call, or that you’re dealing with a crisis, and really appreciate their holding for a little longer than usual. First call resolution goes up when that first call is connected to the agent with the right expertise and product knowledge, because the IVR enabled them to route through to the best person to help them.

All the measures associated with call admin — agent utilization score, after call admin, and so on, are minimized by using an IVR to collect information in advance of the voice conversation, and prepopulate the call record. Customer Y called, for the third time, because of problems with product Z… Your IVR can create this update before your agent gets off the call, and reduce their non-calling work time significantly — making the most of their expertise where it is needed, talking directly to customers.

As a result, customer satisfaction metrics like NPS are elevated, and this reflects directly in the most important metric for any business: the bottom line.

Reduced call center operation costs

By enabling a proportion of callers to complete their inquiry on a self.service basis, your IVR actually replaces some of your human agents, by taking some of the volume out.

So yes, the robots are coming for the customer service jobs — but actually, they're coming for the more boring and routine aspects of that work, enabling the humans to remain deeply engaged with the edge cases: those customers with additional communications needs, unusual situations, or who have managed to break the product in a genuinely new way. This elevates customer support to more of an art form, creating specialized and interesting work for people who really want to make things better for others.

And it means your callers can get through to that human far more quickly, because those humans are not wasting their time crunching through policy renewals or reading people’s bank balance out to them, or any other activity which an IVR can appropriately automate.

Create a professional impression of your business

Particularly for startups or SMEs, you might not have a big call center on stand by to deal with incoming calls, or even any admin staff. But you don’t necessarily want callers to know that — you’re intending to grow, and you’ve created branding and a website which hints at bigger presence in advance. Online it’s easy to be who we want to be, but when answering the phone this can quickly unravel, if it’s obvious that there’s really only a sole trader behind this apparent enterprise.

So, you can set up a basic IVR call center to enhance your presence, and also filter out what calls you want to respond to - because if you are a solopreneur, the last thing you want is to be interrupted by every incoming call personally anyway. Let the unsolicited sales calls, bill chasers, and so on, go to voicemail, while ensuring that new business inquiries or your VIP clients are allowed to interrupt whatever you’re doing — while at the same time creating an impression of a team of specialist staff on hand.

IVR best practices

As you can see, IVRs are hugely powerful tools, which can benefit a range of organizations in different ways. The way you will configure your own depends on the many factors discussed above, but there are a range of best practices which apply to any IVR set-up.

Design your decision-tree with care

We’ve probably all had that experience when using a complicated multi-level IVR, of realizing we’ve ended up in the wrong place. Hmm, perhaps I really should have gone for option 4 instead of 3, back several layers ago… Because none of the presently offered choices are right for me.

There are many reasons this can happen, and we review more below, but often the issue can be traced back to the original design of the options at each level. And if things go wrong here, you will end up with frustrated customers who do not get their needs served.

Think about the user journey involved for each caller, and map out as many of these as possible. Each user journey should have a single and unambiguous pathway through your IVR via the shortest route possible — so once you have the basic flow mapped out, test it with different scenarios.

Even a simple ecommerce operation with a limited product range may have a large number of user journeys to consider, including:

And so on. There will be many more, and some will clump together in meaningful categories for your top-level list of options. But brainstorming them out, and testing their hypothetical journeys through your IVR in order of importance, will help ensure everyone’s needs are well met.

Keep the messages as short and clear as possible

Once you know the map you want to create, think about the labels and messages associated with each one.

At every level, the options on offer should be clear and distinct from one another. You don’t want people wondering, well am I a current customer, or a new enquirer, because I bought something before but I am calling about something new that I want now… help, I don’t know whether to dial 3 or 4! Perhaps some of the choices are similar to each other, or the caller themselves isn’t sure how to describe it. Or you may have designed the system using industry terminology rather than the words and descriptions your customer might use.

A common culprit here are tax offices, where a multitude of different circumstances might apply, and a typical user is not an expert in any way - they’re calling because of something confusing them, but might not know which department they need to help sort it out. It would be far better to create an IVR system which asks them to input their tax reference number at the first level, then intelligently suggests options which might be most relevant and helpful to them.

You should also limit the number of options to choose from, ensuring it is as short as possible, because people usually have to listen to all the possibilities before deciding which one best applies to their situation. Human working memory is finite, and again you create stress for your customers if they struggle to decide because it’s overcomplicated. If you find you’re creating more than 5 options to choose between, it might make sense to introduce another layer into your system for some users.

Use clear professional recordings

Not that long ago, when IVR numbers were not generally user-configurable, businesses would define their messaging and pay for the phone company to provide it complete with all recordings, provided by professional voice artistes.

While this is less typical nowadays, and indeed it may be important for you to be able to rapidly update your messages yourself, it’s worth remembering the importance of clear, neutral, and articulate voices for your recordings. Strong accents, mispronunciations, and even a lack of consistency - using different people for different bits of the IVR - can create confusion for your users, as well as diminishing the professional impression you want to offer, so do give this some thought.

In future, synthetic voices might well take the place of human voice recordings in IVRs, but for now the warmth and humanity of a real person is well worth investing in.

Provide an escape hatch

However carefully you have designed and set it up, people need to be able to escape from your IVR!

There could be many reasons for this, and you cannot pre-empt them all with the right set of options. Perhaps they are disabled and can’t use the keypad easily, perhaps they’re not confident with inputting data, perhaps they’re upset or confused… Or have a truly unique problem. Maybe they just got so far down the wrong blind alley of the decision tree, and can’t see any way out.

So you should always do your callers the courtesy of offering an option to jump straight out of the IVR and talk to a human - assuming it’s not the middle of the night, in which case you can get a human to call them back.

Press the hash key to talk to an agent as soon as one becomes available.

You can monitor uptake of this option, to identify any areas where your IVR menus maybe ambiguous or confusing for users - if everyone tends to bail out of the system at a certain point, there should be something you can fix.

The future of IVR and your business

While there will always be customers with unique needs, increasing automation driven by artificial intelligence will extend the power of IVR solutions to manage growing numbers of inquiries without a human agent at all

This is probably where the future of customer service lies, in the majority of cases - human interaction being a specialist service, while we all grow increasingly accustomed to guided self-service. Even now we know when we’re talking to an automated bot, and we’re used to adjusting the way we speak, to our smart assistants in our phones and speakers - using transactional, direct instructions.

As natural voice recognition technology continues to advance, we might reach the point of not knowing whether we’re talking to a human or a bot - nor caring, provided our needs are met.

So while this may be a little while off in the future for most use cases, getting a thorough understanding and effective implementation of IVR technology in your business now, will stand you in good shape to meet the needs of your customers into the future.

A glossary of Interactive Voice Response terms

DTMF

The unique and universal sound generated by each number on the keypad, which enables interaction with the phone via any device with a numeric interface.

Decision tree

The flowchart of options that your callers navigate as part of your IVR, to route their call to the correct place

Single level IVR

The simplest of menus, where calls are routed to the right department via a single keystroke

Multi-level IVR

A modern and sophisticated routing system wherein selection of a first option triggers a new menu

Integrated IVR

When your IVR is connected with another database such as your CRM or product knowledge base, and entry of data through the IVR can provide additional context to the agent (such as providing the right support article, when the customer enters an error code their product has displayed)

Text-to-speech

Technology which synthesizes voice from a written message

Automatic call distributor (ACD)

A telephony system that routes incoming calls based on rules that have been pre-defined according to the company's specific setup or requirements.

Natural language processing (NLP)

Artificial intelligence which can parse meaning from everyday conversation, instead of having to receive specific limited voice commands

Call center

A business’ telephone unit where calls for sales or support are received, or outbound calls made. Today this may be a virtual center, with agents operating from their own home

IVR survey

Multi-level IVRs can be used to collect survey data, simply by routing callers through options - press 1 if you are very satisfied, 2 if you are satisfied, etc. This is typically used after an agent interaction, to evaluate their performance

Smart routing

An intelligent call routing method that uses pre-collected data about the caller to connect them to the most suitable agent - for example, the one they spoke to most recently

Keypress

The act of sending a command to an IVR via entering a number - which could be actually pressing a key, or even dialing a number, but these days is more likely to be a tap on a keyboard!

CTI

Computer Telephony Integration - this is the secret sauce which lets your IVR mediate your calls, by connecting your conversations to the technology needed for tone-based interaction

Call queue

That’s what you’re in, while you’re hanging on waiting to be attended. IVRs can help minimize the call queue and waiting time, thus reducing frustration for your callers

Music on-hold

Once you pass through the IVR there may still be a wait before your call can be attended - so you’ll hear some relaxing melody, to confirm that your call remains connected

Queue callback

Not everyone has time to listen to music, so offering them an automatic callback lets your caller hold their place in the virtual queue, without having to physically hang on

Hunt groups

This is an algorithm or process which works in conjunction with your IVR to get your caller connected quickly - for example, if they select ‘accounts’ in the IVR menu, the hunt group designated accounts will ring everyone in that department (unless you have set up ‘smart routing’, see above.

IVR messages

These are the recorded snippets which direct your callers to take the next action to resolve their query: keep them simple, short, and sweet (see below for best practices)